Indonesia’s next military chief: Mr Proxy Wars?

General Moeldoko’s time as TNI’s head honcho is coming soon to an end. His term ends in July when he and his bapak rings will be up for retirement. Despite the looming deadline, Jokowi has not yet identified Moeldoko’s successor. Traditionally, the role has rotated through the services (since, 1999 anyway) with four-star generals eligible for the job. That should mean current Air Force Chief of Staff Agus Supriatna will become “Panglima”.

However, as Prashanth Parameswaran points out, it’s far from clear that’ll be the case.

There have been public murmurings, including most recently from VP Jusuf Kalla, that the rotational approach isn’t set in stone. For his part, Jokowi hasn’t indicated either whether he’ll follow tradition or go his own way.

The reasons for playing down Supriatna’s chances are not immediately clear (and happy to hear what others suggest), but let’s consider one of the options should Jokowi go with someone else. Remember, “Mr Proxy Wars” aka Army Chief of Staff General Gatot Nurmantyo? Back in March, he stated efforts to cede Timor-Leste from Indonesia were actually a proxy war for Australia to secure an oil field in the Timor Gap (a point I’ll return to another time). In the same talk to university students, he said Indonesia’s drug problem among the youth was part of a proxy war aimed to weaken them.

That’s the not first time he’s made such statements, and to be fair, they might not amount to much should he take over from Moeldoko. That said, at a time when there appears to be a renewed sense of nationalism in Indonesia, statements made by a Panglima that victimise Indonesia risk fanning nationalist flames. Moeldoko penned strident statements in the Wall Street Journal about the legality of China’s claims in the South China Sea, contrary to statements made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another vocal Panglima could widen the rhetorical divide between Indonesia’s military and diplomatic arms on key security issues.

As Evan Laksmana and Jim Della Giacoma rightfully note, the military—and army in particular—is searching for relevance. It could be that Nurmantyo’s comments are part of this trend. Yet at a time when Jokowi’s vision for Indonesia as a “global maritime fulcrum” depends on a stronger maritime force (being navy, coast guard and air force driven), there’s little apparent logic in appointing back-to-back Army chiefs.

Despite the need to rebuild the Navy and Air Force under the Minimum Essential Force plan, the Army has been given a boost in recent years. During SBY’s presidency, the Army has incrementally ramped up duties to include larger and more frequent peacekeeping operations, counterterrorism functions and, with a slew of MoUs since Jokowi’s presidency, civic affairs. These civic functions range from rice distribution to countering violent extremism activities and disrupting human trafficking networks. Some remote and insecure parts of Indonesia do need to rely on Army logistics for distribution of food and presence for security, but the Navy and Air Force need more championing if they’re to protect Indonesia’s maritime domain.

Naturally it’s hard to know exactly how a Panglima will perform just by looking at his track record. In any case, come late July, part of that mystery will be solved.

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